Transition to In-Person Teaching
Beginning in Spring 2020, the CEP has curated and developed a variety of pedagogical materials that respond to the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Faculty at Barnard have also taken on innovative and thoughtful teaching practices to adapt to remote instruction. Students, in turn, reported improved experiences with virtual learning in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, showing that instructors' hard work paid off. As Barnard begins the transition from remote to in-person teaching and learning this upcoming fall, we hope this resource will help support faculty as they prepare the return to the in-person classroom.
This guide draws from Barnard faculty reflections on remote teaching practices that they would like to continue as well as resources from other institutions. According to the Barnard Office of Institutional Research and Assessment’s “Virtual Learning Survey ” and “Virtual Teaching Survey,” students and faculty reported an increase in creative and innovative pedagogy in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, as compared to the Spring 2020 semester. In this guide, we offer suggestions for course planning, in-class practices, ways to integrate technology, and more. We are especially mindful of the potential challenges that may arise from the transition to in-person instruction, which include cognitive and sensory overload and emotional responses in the classroom.
The teaching suggestions provided below are not exhaustive; neither are they intended to serve as a checklist. Every instructor will have to decide what changes (big or small) they believe are best suited for this transition. Making small changes to start may make the most sense when you consider the holistic picture of both supporting your students and (re-)establishing balance and wellness in your own life and career after several challenging semesters. For additional support as you return to in-person instruction, please request a consultation by emailing email@example.com. To see a full list of CEP teaching resources, please see our website.
Students may be feeling various emotions—ranging from excitement to anxiety—about the transition from remote to in-person learning. Some may also still be struggling to regain a sense of motivation and focus following the challenges of remote learning. To help students feel more at ease, it may be generative to acknowledge the various challenges of returning to an in-person classroom experience and how teaching and learning has changed in light of the pandemic. Recognize that everyone is still getting acquainted with being in a classroom again and embrace the imperfections and awkwardness that may accompany this return.
The return to in-person teaching and learning may not immediately remedy the substantial impact that the pandemic has had on students and their capacity to engage in coursework, and international students may still be prevented from returning to the country. The virus alone can impact physical and mental health for months after the initial infection, including what some are calling “Covid brain fog.” More students than normal have also taken or are enrolled in immersive summer courses, which means that both students and faculty will have had less time to rest and recoup over the summer. Keeping in mind that some students may have more difficulty focusing on coursework and meeting learning objectives, practicing patience and compassion as an instructor is especially important this coming fall.
Throughout the pandemic, many instructors implemented compassionate teaching practices that focused on cultivating a strong sense of community and promoting a culture of care within the classroom. Consider continuing these practices and being mindful of how students are feeling. Something as simple as including a note on your syllabus acknowledging the long-term effects of the virus, with links to campus resources, can go a long way in showing that you care. For example, you might include the following in your syllabus: “If you have had COVID-19 and are suffering from impacts of the virus or its impact on your family or community, please know that there are resources on campus to support you, including Furman, Access Barnard, CARDS, and the CEP. If you are uncertain about any of these resources, or have concerns or questions in general about your ability to navigate this course, please feel free to email me, visit me during office hours, or set up an appointment.”
During this period of transition and shifts, it is helpful to maintain clear channels of communication with your students. This might mean emailing any changes to assignment deadlines in addition to sharing updates at the end of class. If you often end up extending assignment deadlines later in the semester, you might also consider building extensions into the syllabus from the beginning, so that students can choose which assignment(s) they can turn in late without a penalty to their grade.
Consider continuing to use various forms of a check-in to gauge both student progress in the course and overall student well-being. This might include an initial survey at the beginning of the semester to get a sense of any particular challenges students might be facing. You might also check in with students using simple feedback forms throughout the semester (e.g., in an early or mid-semester student feedback survey), or, for smaller classes, by scheduling conferences with students once or twice a semester. You might also consider reaching out to or following up with individual students who may need additional support. Expressing concern about possible barriers students might be facing and offering support can motivate students to re-engage with the course.
Returning to in-person learning may feel celebratory in many ways, but it is equally important to be mindful of ongoing trauma and stress resulting from the pandemic. Many students may be processing loss or are continuing to deal with the emotional and material impact of the pandemic. Indeed, for some, being able to attend class in-person does not necessarily equate to “normalcy.” With this in mind, it is important to be thoughtful of how Covid-19 is addressed in the classroom. For example, you might consider avoiding terminology such as “post-pandemic” in order to recognize that the pandemic and its effects are still ongoing. You might also be cognizant of how the pandemic is brought up in class. Although Covid-related topics may be on the forefront of everyone’s minds, consider when it is appropriate to discuss the pandemic—is it relevant to the course material at the moment or could the conversation wait until after class time? During this moment of transition, instructors might find it helpful to lean on the strategies of trauma-informed teaching. This might mean gently postponing potentially challenging discussion topics, and making space at the end of class, so that students can choose to opt in or out.
For many, the pandemic has increased feelings of isolation and loneliness. It may be initially difficult for students to make connections and socialize with each other. Especially for courses where participation and discussion is central to the learning goals, consider creating formal or informal opportunities for students to converse and get to know each other. For example, you could build in 5-10 minutes of casual conversation time into the beginning or end of each class for icebreakers or a small activity. You could also partner students or assign students to recurring small groups for the entire semester. These groups can be used for discussions, group projects, or other collaborative work. Dividing students into recurring small groups can help facilitate consistent interaction between students.
Returning to the Physical Classroom
Students and instructors will come to the physical classroom space with differing comfort levels, and everyone will be experiencing some sensory overload as we make this transition. Further, both incoming students and sophomores may have never experienced in-person instruction at the college level. Now more than ever, it is important to establish community norms or agreements with students, so that everyone in class has a voice in the way students share the physical space. Since many students have grown accustomed to using non-verbal cues in Zoom (e.g., thumbs up, hand raise, emojis), your discussion around course community agreements might also include a discussion of in-person non-verbal cues (e.g., raising hands to speak). If faculty are teaching in a HyFlex course, with some students joining remotely, consider whether you will ask all students to use comparable cues. You might also consider employing a mnemonic device like WAIT (why am I talking/why I am not talking?) to encourage students to self-regulate their participation.
The beginning of the fall semester is also a good opportunity to remind students that not everyone has the same comfort level with in-person interaction. Instructors might consider including questions about student comfort levels—regarding mask-wearing, social distancing, and close-contact in the classroom—on an initial survey to students. It might also be helpful to visit the classroom prior to the start of the semester to get a sense of its layout and flexibility for group work. For additional strategies on configuring the physical classroom, see the Teaching in Flexible Learning Spaces resource from the Columbia CTL.
While many students and faculty missed in-person teaching and learning, and the community building it can foster, some appreciated the relative comfort and privacy of teaching and learning at home. On a very practical level, instructors might also need to spend some time reacquainting themselves with giving lectures in front of their slides, without the convenience of having the slides in front of them on the screen.
Since some students will feel increased stress levels returning to the classroom, instructors can consider a number of practices to help to set the tone for learning. This could be something as simple as designating the first 2-3 minutes of class time for students to engage in reflective writing (e.g., on a topic of relevance to the day, or to recall what they learned in the previous class). Doing this consistently at the beginning of each class can help reinforce key concepts while reducing stress. You might also consider opening class sessions with a brief breathing exercise or guided meditation to bring student awareness to the space and their own embodiment—with the option for students to opt out of the activity. Multiple studies have shown that mindfulness and contemplative strategies can be effective in reducing student stress and supporting learning, but instructors can also keep their own stress levels in mind and start simple (e.g., by playing a breathing exercise video that already exists). If you are interested in trying a guided breathing exercise, these additional resources may be helpful for contextualizing and leading these practices:
Some faculty reported that they appreciated the “flatness” of Zoom, because it allowed them to see all or most of their students’ faces at once. The inherent randomness of Zoom’s layout also prevented students from knowing where instructors were looking on the screen, thus mitigating potential biases and breaking down potential hierarchies within the physical classroom (e.g., instructors looking to the same students for answers to questions) (Boysen and Vogel, 2009). As instructors return to the classroom, it may be helpful to recall these principles of equity, and make conscious effort to vary where they look in the classroom.
Adapting Course Design
During the period of remote instruction, many students appreciated how instructors adjusted course pace, learning activities, and assignments. For example, some instructors replaced exams with multiple shorter written assignments; others shared new alternative assignments that asked students to engage with their local communities or environments; and many reported adding active learning components to their courses to supplement or replace lectures. Consider continuing to adapt pedagogical practices to accommodate students’ needs. For example, you might choose to maintain multiple modes of participation in the classroom and various ways of demonstrating learning beyond a conventional final paper or exam. You might also choose to continue more flexible course policies surrounding attendance and deadlines that demonstrate patience and understanding toward students’ individual circumstances. Giving students (and yourself) grace is especially important during this transition period.
Many faculty reported reducing the amount of content they covered during the period of remote teaching, both in their standard 16-week courses and in their 6-week immersive courses. In many cases, this was a direct response to student burnout and stress in the face of the pandemic or the practical constraints of 6-week courses. However, some also expressed that covering less content meant that they could spend more time engaging students in active learning or digging deeply into material with students. As one concrete example, Chemistry Chair and Professor Rachel Narewood Austin reported in her Virtual Tea with CEP interview that she “. . . made a point of going back to [her] syllabus and making reading assignments that were more concise and more focused and then had students upload daily reading logs.”
Similarly, English and Comparative Literature Professor Jenny Davidson explains in the Columbia CTL’s Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning podcast, that the question of how much content is appropriate will depend on the course context, and how much is “cognitively realistic for [students] to take in.” Where possible, Davidson argues for depth over breadth, especially with challenging texts or materials: “[I]f you pick the right paragraph and sit with it as a group and really know that passage, that is going to be what students remember rather than having read too fast or too much material.” While it is always important to balance rigor and compassion in the design of a course, students may be particularly susceptible to cognitive overload this semester, and continuing to think critically about the amount of content that is necessary may make for a more impactful learning experience.
Integrating Technology in the Classroom
Alternatives to chat function in Zoom
Many instructors have found the chat function in Zoom particularly useful for increasing participation and enhancing student engagement. Chat function is also helpful for facilitating check-ins or collecting questions/concerns that students may have. What alternatives do we have for using something like Zoom’s chat feature in the classroom?
Practicing Balance & Wellness
Though many faculty and students enjoyed aspects of remote teaching and learning, and want to carry practices and lessons learned into the future, they also communicated feelings of burnout. Instructors put in extensive time and effort redesigning their courses, meeting one-on-one with students over Zoom, and caring for family in close quarters. Moreover, several faculty communicated that the pandemic left them with little to no time for their own research. Identifying self-care routines or continuing existing ones, communicating adjusted expectations, and (re-)establishing balance may be necessary for faculty and students alike as they make this transition. For more on self-care routines, see the section titled, “Practicing and Modeling Self-Care” below.
While we may still benefit from the convenience of occasional Zoom meetings, instructors might also consider re-setting expectations with students and colleagues by resuming normally scheduled office hours and being transparent with students about response windows for emails. While faculty continue to serve a key role in supporting students, you might also consider guiding students to campus resources for support—perhaps using the CEP’s Feedback Map for Student Support—for issues beyond your capacity as an instructor.
In a recent article on survivor-centered and trauma-informed teaching in the college classroom, Nicole Bedera underscores the importance of practicing self-care, especially among instructors who may be regularly confronted with the effects of trauma among their students. She describes “routine self-care” as the “regular practices that prevent emotional burnout and create a reserve of emotional spaces for taxing days” (2021, p. 273). For Bedera, this “includes pleasant things that [she] find[s] replenishing, like keeping [her] weekends free for leisure time with [her] loved ones, but also the more mundane and essential stuff like getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and making time for health-affirming practices like therapy and physical checkups" (p. 273). As instructors navigate another set of changes this semester, it may be especially necessary to take time for themselves, draw on support networks, and pay attention to the signs of burnout.
Modeling self-care for students can also set a tone of compassion in the classroom. This might mean taking short breaks within longer class periods; acknowledging and discussing potential stressors associated with the transition; or building in time during class for informal conversation or debriefing on the week.
Keep in mind that the transition back to the classroom won’t be an “instant fix” or go perfectly right from the beginning, but that’s okay! This transition will take time for both students and instructors.
Bibliography & Additional Sources
- Bedera, N. (2021). Beyond Trigger Warnings: A Survivor-Centered Approach to Teaching on Sexual Violence and Avoiding Institutional Betrayal. Teaching Sociology, 49(3), 267-277. https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055X211022471
- Boysen GA and Vogel DL. (2009). Bias in the Classroom: Types, Frequencies, and Responses. Teaching of Psychology, 36(1), 12-17. https://doi.org//10.1080/00986280802529038
- Budson, AE. (2021, March 8). What is COVID-19 Brain Fog—and how can you clear it?. Harvard Health Blog. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-is-covid-19-brain-fog-and-how-can-you-clear-it-2021030822076
- Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Early and Mid-Semester Student Feedback. ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/resources/student-feedback/
- Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Teaching in Flexible Spaces. ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/teaching-with-technology/teaching-online/flexible-spaces/
- Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Transition to In-Person Teaching On-Demand Resource. https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/teaching-with-technology/teaching-online/transition-to-in-person/
- Gooblar, D. (2021, March 24). Our Slimmed Down Pandemic Pedagogy, Chronicle of Higher Education. chronicle.com/article/our-slimmed-down-pandemic-pedagogy
- Hoover, E. (2021, August 3). Who’s Had Covid-19? A National Survey of Students Reveals Disparities. Chronicle of Higher Education. chronicle.com/article/whos-had-covid-19-a-national-survey-of-students-reveals-disparities
- Lang, J. (n.d.) Small Changes in Teaching (9-Part Series). Chronicle of Higher Education. chronicle.com/package/small-changes-in-teaching/
- McKenzie, L. (2021, April 27). Students Want Online Learning Options Post-Pandemic. Inside HigherEd. insidehighered.com/news/2021/04/27/survey-reveals-positive-outlook-online-instruction-post-pandemic
- Michigan Center for Research on Learning & Teaching. (n.d.). Guidelines for Classroom Interactions. crlt.umich.edu/examples-discussion-guidelines
- Ross, C. (Host). (2020, December 17). Bonus Episode with Jenny Davidson: How much Reading is Enough? [Audio podcast episode]. Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning. https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/resources/podcast/